Artists of Battlefield Deception: Soldiers of the 23rd The soldiers of the secret 23rd Special Forces played a unique role in World War II: to deceive the enemy and draw their attention away from real combat troops. The unit was made up of artists, designers, architects and sound engineers.

Artists of Battlefield Deception: Soldiers of the 23rd

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From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.


And I'm Robert Siegel.

All this week, NPR is featuring stories to coincide with the Ken Burn's World War II documentary series on PBS. And today, we're going to hear about ghost soldiers. The 23rd Special Troops unit of the U.S. Army was kept secret until 1996. Made up largely of artists, designers, architects and sound engineers, the 23rd's mission was to deceive the enemy by drawing their attention away from real combat troops.

NPR's Lynn Neary has the story of this phantom army.

LYNN NEARY: More than a thousand troops were recruited into the 23rd, some came right out of art school. Fashion designer Bill Blass was one of them, so was photographer Art Kane, and a number of now well-known artists, including abstract expressionist Ellsworth Kelly.

Mr. ELLSWORTH KELLY (Expressionist; Member, 23rd Special Troops, U.S. Army): When you look through a drawing as an artist, your memory takes over. This was the beginning. This is when we went over on the boat. This is the first one, really.

NEARY: A few weeks ago, Kelly sat in his studio in upstate New York browsing through wartime drawings and photos of himself as a young soldier.

Mr. KELLY: Let me see what I think is here.

NEARY: Kelly heard about the 23rd while still an art student and decided he wanted to be part of the camouflage unit. When he joined, work was already underway on developing fake weapons and vehicles.

Mr. KELLY: This was the prototype of the jeep. And you can see it was made with burlap. I mean, they made the tires in burlap and made a wood frame for it. But later, they were made in rubber, inflatable, and they looked like the real thing.

NEARY: Eventually, members of the unit were shipped overseas. Jack Masey was 18 years old when he was drafted into the 23rd after graduating from New York's high school of Music and Art. Masey says it wasn't until he landed in England that he really understood what he would be doing.

Mr. JACK MASEY (Member, 23rd Special Troops, U.S. Army): We were told we were going to be using inflatable equipment to try and fool the Germans into thinking that we were a real army, when, in effect, we were - I suppose, a rubber army.

NEARY: Members of the 23rd were sent to France in the weeks after D-Day. Under cover of night, they would inflate their rubber tanks, jeeps and weapons, hoping to convince the Germans that there were more troops in certain areas than was actually the case. The 23rd was sworn to secrecy, forbidden to tell anyone what they were really doing.

Ellsworth Kelly remembers one day when he was on guard and an American general approached.

Mr. KELLY: He came up and he said, what's going on here? And we said, we can't say anything. I mean, we just said our serial numbers, and he was furious. He said, the general, I'm going to walk in here and see what you're doing. He walked in and he leaned on the jeep and the jeep gave way. He said, what the hell is happening here? He ran out in his own jeep and roared away.

NEARY: But fake equipment was only one of the ways the troops of the 23rd deceived the enemy.

(Soundbite of U.S. Army training film)

Unidentified Man #1: Sonic warfare is a weapon already tried and proven in this war and is one of the Army's most closely guarded secrets.

NEARY: This Army training film - only recently declassified - introduced troops to the elaborate system of fake recordings that the sonic deception unit used in the field.

(Soundbite of U.S. Army training film)

Unidentified Man #1: All these are sounds that would be heard by the enemy if a bridge were being built. And all these components, before they can be projected from the loud speakers, must be mixed unto one soundtrack, which is recorded on wire.

NEARY: Jonathan Gawne, author of "Ghosts of the ETO," says the troops mounted huge speakers onto halftracks to project the sound of the recordings.

Mr. JONATHAN GAWNE (Author, "Ghosts of the ETO"): And this could be men moving up, this could be tanks moving along the road, this could be a bridge being built. And at night, they would move their halftracks in place. At certain prescribed times, they would play this program so that the Germans on the other side would hear what the Americans wanted them to hear.

NEARY: The troops of the 23rd were also chameleons, often changing the insignia on their uniforms and vehicles, pretending to be members of other units and companies.

Jon Gawne says they were trying to outfox German informers.

Mr. GAWNE: Some of them were actually German soldiers that were hiding in barns, some of them were French that were working for the Germans. And they would radio reports back of what was going on in the area.

NEARY: Jack Masey says the Special Troops would act as decoys.

Mr. MASEY: We would go in to the various towns, and we were told, be seen, mill around, you know, go to pubs, have a good time, pick up girls, you know, enjoy. If some French would ask you, you know, what outfit are you with? I'm with the 3rd Armor Division, or something like that. In other words, spread the word that you were the real thing as it were.

NEARY: One scene in the Army training film depicts the results of such deception as actors play German officers taken in by misinformation passed on by their spies.

(Soundbite of U.S. Army training film)

Unidentified Man #2: Yes?

Unidentified Man #3: here's your report, sir. Two hours ago, an American major general commanding the 66th Armor Division arrived at core headquarters. Advance elements are already setting up a command post.

Unidenfitied Man #2: Where did you get this?

Unidentified Man #3: A resident of the district, sir.

NEARY: The Special Troops took part in 21 operations during the war with mixed results. Sometimes, their efforts seemed to have little effect. But Jon Gawne says they are credited with one big success: Operation Viersen near the end of the war, when the Americans were crossing the Rhine.

Mr. GAWNE: They simulated the 30th and 79th Infantry Divisions and made it appear as though those divisions were training for a river crossing, were moving up supplies for a river crossing in one area, while the actual two divisions were moving secretly to the north and crossed in the north. And the general commanding the 9th Army, General Simpson, said that he felt that that deception may well have saved 10,000 men.

NEARY: Veterans of the 23rd tend to downplay their contribution to the war. The infantry, they say, those guys were the ones who really did the fighting. Mostly, Ellsworth Kelly says, members of his unit were grateful not to be in the thick of combat. But sometimes, it was hard not to be part of the real army. He remembers one difficult encounter with an infantry unit.

Mr. KELLY: They thought we were relieving them. They had their orders to attack. And, of course, they met the Germans full on and they had to retreat. And remember, we were getting ready to leave very quickly, and all our stuff has already been packed up. And they were cussing us because, why didn't you come and help us? We had no real tanks at all.

NEARY: When the war ended, Kelly and the other veterans of the 23rd were told they had to keep their war experiences secret. Not all of them did. Jack Masey says he told his family and friends about them. Ellsworth Kelly did not. Neither did Roy Eichhorn's stepfather, George Martin.

Mr. ROY EICHHORN (Director of Research and Development, Army Management Staff College, Fort Belvoir): I knew he was in the Army. I knew he was an Army engineer. I never really understood what he did.

NEARY: Eichhorn, the director of research and development at the Army Management Staff College at Fort Belvoir, got curious about his dad's service in the war and began asking questions. He learned that Martin was a photographer who documented the work of the 23rd. Eichhorn became fascinated with the Special Troops and began doing research. The Army, he says, has much to learn from the 23rd.

Mr. EICHHORN: How do you lead people that are that creative in what we think of as this incredibly stovepipe, stodgy organization? How does the Army make use of talent? How do you find that spark? How do you harness it and then guide it without trying to regiment it?

NEARY: The veterans of the 23rd are now free to talk about their experiences, though many are no longer alive. But now, at least, their families understand what it was they did during the war, and why they were so secret about it.

Lynn Neary, NPR News, Washington.

SIEGEL: You can see video and photos of the 23rd Special Troops' deception work at, where you'll also find previous stories in our World War II series.

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